Who wants to live forever?
I know I don’t.
Not for millennia now.
But I finally figured it out. It only took me a few thousand years.
I figured out how I will become the Face of Boe, the real Face, not the face of the Boeshane Peninsula.
All it took was some research.
In the biggest Library in the Universe.
It had bothered me since Utopia. Oh, I remembered - vaguely - Rose and the ninth Doctor talking about the Face of Boe, and a tree-lady called Jabe, and one Lady Cassandra. But it didn’t really make an impression on me until much later, in Utopia, when the Face’s... prophecy? that the Doctor was not alone proved to be true. Maybe I had forgotten intentionally, or maybe it was one of those things I had forgotten courtesy of high doses of Retcon from the Time Agency.
I wasn’t sure I’d become the Face of Boe; perhaps it meant something else. But I had been alive a long time, and the coincidence of names had to mean something. Over three thousand years in my personal timeline since Torchwood Three. Since Gwen and Ianto and the 456 and Steven. More than three thousand years, and it still hurt sometimes. But after three millennia, the pain gets blunted, and these days I was looking for something new to do. I remembered that connection and remembered, too, that when I was a Time Agent, there had been a library. A whole planet that was nothing but Library. What better place to research?
When I went to find it, I discovered the Doctor had been there a couple years previously. The tenth Doctor, the one from Utopia and the Year That Never Was and the Medusa Cascade. I was curious. Oh, let me be honest, there’s a fine line between curious and nosy. I wanted to know what had happened to the Doctor here in the Library; maybe it held a clue to why he had been so desperately sad when I saw him later. Maybe I could find out.
And find out whether I was going to become the Face of Boe as the Doctor and Rose and Martha had known him, or whether it was a hereditary title, or what.
So I went to the Library, and spoke with a Node. This was a face in a computer terminal; it looked like real flesh but it was... lifeless, still. No inflection in the voice and purely informational. But it did the job, and it directed me to the area I needed. There were other Nodes scattered throughout, and they had different faces, but all were that dull and static sort of face. I got to the section on the Isop Galaxy and found a sort of table sitting near the books I needed, so I sat down and started to read.
I looked up as the Library Node here spoke. This one spoke warmly, and she looked more... more real than the ones who had directed me here. This Node had a suggestion of hair - curly by the look of it - around the oval that made up her face, and a sweet smile and she didn’t speak in a monotone like the others had.
“You should leave, you know,” she said simply. “They will come and they will eat you, and I haven’t the space to save you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can’t die. Not permanently.”
She smiled again, sadly, it seemed to me. “But you want to?”
“How did you know?”
“It’s written all over you... if one knows how to look.” Wait, I thought, the Nodes are just... avatars of the library computer, but this one... there’s something... strong about her. Different. But she was talking, and she seemed like a real person. I wondered how she did it. Her voice was sad too, and her speech far more colloquial than that of the other Nodes. “My love sometimes looked the way you do. Wanted nothing more than peace, but...” she trailed off, that lovely mouth frowning.
“Sounds like my kinda guy. Or gal. Or shrub.” I smiled at her and was rewarded by a grin in return.
“Guy,” she said, “At least, those regenerations of him I knew.”
“R-regenerations?” My voice had gone hoarse, but I didn’t care. Because regenerations implied a species like... did this mean she knew the Doctor? But... wait, in this time and place, it could have been any Time Lord, before the Doctor sealed them up. Be very careful here, Jack, my boy.
How did she give the impression of nodding, with her face stuck in the Node like that? This was no simple computer avatar. “He was a Time Lord,” she said softly. “The last of the Time Lords.”
“But I know him.” I said it blankly, and she didn’t react, not so I could see. “The Doctor. He’s your--”
“--husband. Yes. And if you can’t die, that means you’re...” Her voice was faint now.
“Captain Jack Harkness,” I confirmed, not sure whether to expect recognition. But she did recognise me, and her face just... lit up.
“Oh! Oh, Jack, I am so glad it’s you! I... I’ve missed knowing the Doctor’s companions. I only ever met Donna Noble of the ones he travelled with before he met me, and...” Her face fell. “I’m sorry. I don’t know how much of this is spoilers for you.” She gave a slightly bitter laugh. “I’m not even sure when we are.”
In spite of her words, she seemed so sad. So I did my best to make it clear that the Doctor was still alive and kicking. “Late 51st century. Not long after the Doctor closed down the planet. Couple of years, local time.”
She breathed a sigh of... was it relief? “Well, if anyone can make it through the Vashta Nerada, it’s you. I think the Doctor promised them nobody would come back here, though.”
“He doesn’t get to make promises for me. If they want to eat me, fine.” I threw her one of those grins, the ones that had wreaked havoc on humanoid hearts for centuries, and she laughed. “I’ve been eaten by worse.”
She laughed again. “You can’t scare me with your flirting, Captain Jack Harkness. I was a bad girl in the 21st, and a very good girl in the 52nd... by the mores of the times.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “Both the 21st and the 52nd? You are a bad girl, Missus Doctor...?” If she had spent time in the 52nd, then she was one of my own kind. A time-traveller, maybe a time agent. And it explained how she knew the Doctor.
“Professor River Song, time-travelling archaeologist, wife of the Doctor, and - I’m told - hell in high heels.” Her grin was both flirtatious and smug.
“I bet you are. So... how long do I have to do my research before the Vashta Nerada come to eat me?” Back to business.
“Not long. But if you can’t die we can try several times. And I can help. Any friend of the Doctor’s is a friend of mine.” She smiled at me companionably, and we got to work.
The problem with being eaten by a Swarm of the Vashta Nerada was similar to that of being blown up; I tended to revive before my body was complete. And that hurt. But the Professor - “Oh, do call me River. We’re friends.” - talked me through the pain. The first time, the first several times, telling me the bare bones of how she and the Doctor had met, her parents, her birth on Demon’s Run. What exactly they meant by spoilers, and how it was that their lives often ran opposite each other. After the first few times, she had me do the talking; she was voracious about learning everything she could about me and my time with the Doctor, and even about my time not with the Doctor.
“You loved them,” she said softly, with tears in her eyes and a catch in her voice.
“I did.” I gave a sigh, and then held still for a bit, closing my eyes against the pain. Sighing deeply when one’s skin has not yet regenerated... I don’t recommend it. And the skin wasn’t the only pain as I thought of them. “But I only ever told Estelle,” I said, “And I let her think I was dead, that the Jack she knew in later years was the son of the one she had known before the War. That I had gone to another woman and had a son.” I couldn’t look at River. Who knew what might be in those expressive eyes in that still face? I wanted her to think well of me.
“I’m sure she knew you loved her,” she said, with that little catch in her voice, and I glanced up. Her eyes were distant, sad, filled with tears.
“River... are you okay?” My voice was hoarse again, and she seemed to come back to herself.
“Just remembering...” She trailed off, then her voice grew stronger and she gave me a little smile. God, she had a beautiful smile. “Tell me about the others. The others you have loved.”
“Your husband. At least... two of him. His TARDIS.” Her smile grew wider. “Rose Tyler, Martha Jones. Even Mickey Smith. I only met Donna and Sarah Jane the once. But they, all of them... there was sexual attraction, but the love was...”
“Yeah. I loved Owen and Toshiko, like they were... I dunno, younger siblings? Suzie too, for awhile. Until she... well.” I didn’t want to talk about Suzie, and River seemed to understand it was time to go back to work for a bit. Or maybe it was just that my skin had regenerated.
So we did some research, there in the Library, and found that origins of the Face of Boe were unknown, but that his existence had been first recorded not too long after this now, the one we were in. “That says to me that we do find the answer here and now, Jack, sometime before you leave here,” River said, and then sighed. “‘I’ve been banged up in here for two years real time, and it seems much longer.” Those expressive eyes looked haunted for just a moment, as though she was frightened, then cleared. “Well. I can think of a few ways I could get out but...”
“But you need the Doctor, and you have to tell him how without spoilers.”
“And it wouldn’t be the same, unless he could fashion a Flesh body or an android that looks exactly like me. I guess...” I suspected that if her face was real the tears would be streaming down it now, and I straightened. I felt... stiff, rather like when Abbadon had killed me, moving slowly, but I walked toward the Node with River’s face and kissed her.
“He’s a Time Lord, River. He won’t mind a different face.” She smiled against my lips and then stiffened herself, her face going very still.
“They’re coming again. The Swarm of Vashta Nerada. I’m sorry, Jack.”
“Me too. But if we can find a way to... “ She nodded, and then I closed my eyes as the Swarm turned out the lights.
Someone was screaming, and it took several minutes before I realised it was me. This time it hurt, more than pulling Owen away from the Something - Duroc - in the Nothing after death. More than... well... the less said about that the better. When I came all the way back, I discovered what a bad idea it was to cry while my skin was still forming; nothing like saltwater tracks across flayed flesh... and what was that sound? My screams had drowned it out, but now I could hear a low moaning. And not the good kind.
Oh. River Song. I’m sorry.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, when I could speak again.
“Not your fault.” Her voice was dull and lifeless, more like the usual Nodes than I had yet heard it.
“Still. I can do this by myself if... if you’d rather not witness it.” My tongue felt thick, my words and movements and thoughts slow. The Swarm was doing a number on me, and it hurt like hell, but I wanted to know about the Face, whether I became him, or gave birth to him (and here I said I’d never do that again, I thought), or, well, how he came to be. And this was the only place to find out. But she was talking. I got the impression that if she could, she’d be shaking her head. As it was, once I managed to open my eyes and look up at her from my contorted position on the floor at her... base, I could see that her eyes were wet and her expression one of mingled pity and... something else I couldn’t quite read.
“No, Jack, it’s okay, it’s all right,” she said, as she obviously had been saying for some time, and her voice was as full of pity as her face. “I’ll stay. Can you stand?”
“Give me a few minutes.” When I was able, I stood, shakily, and smiled up at her. And it was up at her this time, like I had shrunk somehow during this last death. I sighed. “What is it, River? You can tell me.”
She didn’t say; she just caused a mirror to materialise on a nearby wall.
I guess that explained why the Face of Boe had first become known just after my visit here, to the Library Planet. Apparently someone who can’t stay dead but who can die, when exposed to multiple Swarms of the Vashta Nerada, well...
...he begins to change.
My head was already bigger, balder. My body smaller. And that was after only maybe half a dozen deaths by these... things.
“I wonder how many times it’ll take,” I mused aloud, and the River-Node made a choking noise. She was shocked, I guess, and I probably was too. “I’m sorry. As long as it doesn’t hurt as much next time, I’ll be okay. I have my answer now, so you don’t have to stay and watch.” Yes. Definitely shock. Entertaining the idea that I might transform somehow and seeing it in action were two very different things. What if she did leave? I wasn’t sure I’d be sane if it hurt this much next time. Not if I was alone.
Everyone always left me alone.
She was talking again though, and I hadn’t been listening; I was kind of... stuck in my own head. Heh, I thought, my head. May as well be stuck there, Jack, my boy. You’ll be all head soon.
“I’ll stay,” she was saying firmly, with determination. “Now we don’t have to research as such; we just have to build the tank the Doctor described. And keep you going.” Her Node-face took a deep breath. “I can do that.” Now that fabulous mouth was set, grimly, so I smiled at her.
“All right. Then tell me about the Doctor - your Doctor. He’s the one after the second one I knew...?”
So she began, and she told me more details than she had before. The regeneration she considered her Doctor looked young, mid-twenties if he had been human. Like Ianto, I thought briefly, but no, this was her turn to talk. Except for his eyes, she said, he had hazel eyes that looked ancient in his baby face, and gangly limbs (though he was not so tall and thin as his predecessor). She described him well, but I couldn’t really see him in my mind, so she replaced the mirror with a holo-projector and showed me a picture. Several pictures, of the Doctor and her mum and her dad and...
Wow. “I met your dad once,” I said without thinking, and her eyes filled with tears again. But they looked happy this time, and she smiled at me through the tears. “While he was a Roman, waiting outside the Pandorica for your mum. I know that timeline got... reset. But I remember it, like it was a dream. I guess that’s an advantage to time travel.”
“They’re gone,” she said softly. “I don’t think my love will ever really recover from that. They’re not dead,” she rushed on, “I mean, they are now, but when we lost them it’s because they were sent back in time, to a when too... tangled up... for the Doctor to go.” I must have made some sort of sympathetic noise, because she smiled at me again. “I loved them. Even with all that... all those horrible things that happened to me as a baby and a small child, I knew them. I knew my parents.” And then she told me all about Mels, and growing up with Amy and Rory. She really had loved them, through a very untraditional parent/child relationship.
When she got to meeting the Doctor, in Nazi Berlin (am I ever going to get away from the damn Blitz? I thought randomly), she referred to herself as his bespoke psychopath, and I reacted before I even thought about it. “No, you’re not,” I said, and her face went very still, like the usual Nodes. “You’re not,” I insisted. “River, I have met psychopaths. I’ve even met Time Lord psychopaths.” I couldn’t help it; I shuddered all over at the memory of the things the Master had done to me during that year - and he had done worse to the Doctor. Now there was a psychopath.
The River-Node’s face didn’t move; it had gone completely blank, and I wondered whether I had offended her. But then a glow began to shimmer into existence beside me, and I turned painfully to look at it.
It was a hologram, a hologram of River Song.
She was beautiful.
She looked to be in her forties, but her eyes were much older. Those eyes were a brilliant green right now, but had been a soft grey in the Node, and her full lips stretched in a wide smile. A curvy little body with a tiny waist, which the hologram showed off in a snug metallic green dress and sky-high shoes. Hell in high heels indeed.
And her hair. It was... sort of amazing. No wonder her Node-face showed a hint of hair, I thought, the Library had no choice. Her hair seemed to have a life of its own, and I had no doubt it was capable of bullying the Library computer into doing whatever it wanted.
“You’re beautiful,” I heard a voice say, and realised it was mine. If anything her smile grew wider.
“Do you really think I’m not a psychopath?”she asked almost wistfully. It was a strange question, but I nodded anyway. “I’ve always thought I was,” she said in a conversational tone, “And it upset me a bit because I didn't think psychopathy worked like that.” She paused, and the hologram did a good imitation of taking a deep and calming breath. “You see, most of the time I’m me, River Song. But sometimes, in the data core, I... forget.” She offered this statement as though it was a gift, and in a way, I think it was. Someone like River Song didn’t admit vulnerability easily. “It’s like I’m somebody else, someone meek and rather silly. Like a geography teacher from Leadworth. That seems kind of psychopathic to me.” She snapped her mouth shut as though she’d said more than she meant to, and just looked at me as I spoke.
“You’re not a psychopath; you’re stuck in a computer. Time has to run differently there, and it probably affects your memory now and then. And you are River Song, not a silly geography teacher from Leadworth. Whoever it was who told you that you were... was, well, the crazy one.”
“It was her,” the hologram of River said, and shuddered much as I had when I thought about the Master. “Madame Kovarian. The bitch. I’ve believed it my whole life, and my mum and ...” She trailed off, looking distressed, then looked up. Her face paled, and I wondered vaguely how the hologram could do that, and the shuddering and the rest; why waste the processing power? Although I guessed she had it to spare. “They’re coming again, Jack,” she said softly. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It has to be done.”
I closed my eyes and waited for the shadows.
It didn’t hurt so much this time, but after I woke, I lay still for a long while, trying to summon the strength to get up. I felt very heavy, tired, and I crawled to a wall and braced myself against it.
River was still in hologram form when I opened my eyes, hovering - literally - over me with solicitous concern. “We’d better get that tank built before you lose the use of your limbs,” she said softly. “I can only help with the design, not the implementation.” I groaned, but used the wall to push myself to my feet. I wobbled a bit, because my head felt heavy.
I already said that.
So it was more than my body that was changing, it was my mind too. Slower thinking, but maybe deeper, and--
“Stop it, Jack.”
“I can hear you thinking.” Her voice was tight, controlled, and just a little frightened, and I tried to pull. To pull my mind back so it wasn’t shouting my thoughts to all and sundry. River breathed a sigh of relief and spoke again, much more warmly. “I’m sorry, Jack. It looks like...”
“Like all of me is changing.”
I heard it, heard her affirmative response in my head, though she hadn’t said it aloud. I pasted up an imaginary wall between us, and spoke with my voice. “So. Do you have the plans for the tank? We’d better get started.”
So we did, through several more attacks by the Swarm, and it took very little time to build the tank and get it hooked up. River could bring the materials in somehow - maybe a small teleportation unit? - but I did the actual construction myself. When it was done, when all was left was to seal it shut, I climbed painfully in, resting my big head against the side of the tank, and just sat for a moment. breathing hard.
“River?” Oh good, I thought, my voice still works.
“I’m...” I closed my eyes. “I’m afraid.”
“I know.” Her voice was terribly gentle, and when I opened my eyes I saw that she hovered just outside the tank. “I’ll stay with you. I’ll tell you a story if you like. I’ve gotten quite good at it.” I tried to nod but it hurt my neck, and so I just told her that yes, I’d like that. “Once upon a time,” she began, “A long time ago, there was a...” She kept talking, but I wasn’t really listening. Not to her words, but to the melodic tone of her voice.
When the lights went out again, she stopped, abruptly. “It’s all right, River. When I wake the next time I’ll tell you a story. Just wait. Stay. Please.” She nodded, and I saw the hologram gulp visibly, but she didn’t flinch as the Swarm took me under again.
Someone was calling my name.
“Jack, wake up. Please, please, stay with me, please. Don’t go...”
Stay with me, please. Don’t go...
I opened my eyes and saw her, floating with her hair haloing her head. “Am I...?” Am I the Face of Boe?
“Not yet. Not completely. Soon, I think.”
Yes... soon. Oh... she heard me. I tried that pulling-back again, but I did not have the energy.
“Don’t worry, Jack,” she said, flapping a hand at me. “I was taken by surprise the first time, but you can’t help it.”
I promised... I would tell you a story.
“I don’t want a story just now. Tell me about them. The ones it hurt too much to talk about before.”
It did not hurt so much now, so I told her. I told her of Gwen, and of how - living in that then - I could not tell her how I felt. It would not have been right. And about Steven and the 456, and the sacrifice I made. I would have found another way, I think, had Ianto not been killed.
“Maybe,” she said, consideringly. “But sometimes there is no other real choice. You chose to save the many, Jack, at the expense of the few. You could have let the 456 have their way, sacrificed all those children. I might have, in the same circumstance.”
No... you would not.
“But I have. I was once willing that the entire universe would blink out, if I could save the Doctor. If he had not worked out a way, I would have let all those people, billions upon billions, suffer and die rather than give him up.” She smiled sadly at me. “Told you I was a psychopath.”
But he did find a way. It is what he does. You and I made the choices we had available to us.
“Some days are special,” she said, as though she was quoting. “Some days are so so blessed. Some days nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while - every day in a million days when the wind stands fair and the Doctor comes to call - everybody lives.”
Everybody lives, I agreed. He said that the first time we met. I sighed. I could wish Ianto had lived. At least long enough for me to build the courage to tell him how I felt about him. I never did.
“You did tell him, Jack.”
No. I tried to show him. But I was afraid to tell him, because I knew even then that he would not be able to stay forever. The pain and guilt of memory was lessened now, replaced by a mild regret.
River looked stubborn. “You told him, Jack. Ianto Jones was not a stupid man. And you told him. Watch.” She went still, and another hologram appeared, this one an entire scene.
A young Jack Harkness, less than two centuries old, sitting at his desk in the Torchwood Three Hub. A young Ianto Jones, barely twenty-five, perched on the edge of the desk. “I, ah... know you get lonely,” said Ianto, and the sound of his voice still ignited a little pang.
“Going back wouldn’t fix that,” said Jack, stacking papers and carefully not meeting Ianto’s eyes. Not yet. I remembered this. He looked up at the younger man, shook his head, and looked away. “Being here, I’ve seen things I never dreamt I’d see. Loved people I never would have known if I had just stayed where I was.” Then he looked up and their eyes met, and Jack’s voice broke as he said, “And I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
The tableau froze, and the River hologram spoke. “It wasn’t the only time you told him, Jack. It was just the first one I found in the Torchwood Archives stored in the Library’s data core.” She smiled wistfully. “I know how hard it is for immortals to say the words. I married the Doctor.”
The lights went out.
Thank you, River Song...
I have lived long since that interlude in the Library, when I became the Face of Boe.
It is unlikely that I would have remained sane had it not been for River Song.
Would that I could tell the Doctor... but as River Song would say, spoilers.
I will see him soon. I have arranged for a viewing of the Earth’s death, and he is meant to be there.
With Rose, not yet understanding what it means to love the Doctor.
I love them. And now I dare not tell them for spoilers rather than fear.
Who wants to live forever?
I know I do not.